Friday, October 24, 2014

Tropical Malady (2004)

Sud pralad, Thailand / France / Germany / Italy, 118 minutes
Director/writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Jarin Pengpanitch, Vichit Tanapanitch, Jean-Louis Vialard
Music: Smallroom
Editors: Lee Chatametikool, Jacopo Quadri
Cast: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma

Tropical Malady yokes two unrelated stories into coequal halves so formally that it almost feels like an anthology. The second story even gets what appears to be a title ("A Spirit's Path"). Yet there are mysterious affinities between the two halves. Both involve soldiers and share the two acting leads (who look very different across the stories), both revolve around investigations by the military of unexplained deaths of villagers and livestock. Director and writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul is notably a comer on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, splitting votes by the evidence, with Tropical Malady presently at #12 and, behind it, Blissfully Yours at #15, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at #36, and Syndromes and a Century at #45.

Weerasethakul is Thai and might as well be approached as something of an Asian David Lynch. It's an easy comparison. He's weird enough and his sources feel deep enough. Weerasethakul's fundamental preoccupation are with the spirit world, though his appreciation for the beauties of the carnal, physical plane are undeniable. If nothing else—and sometimes I think it's not much more—Tropical Malady is extraordinarily beautiful, capturing the luminous qualities of life and its visible surfaces: the glowing green of the jungle, the evocative faces of animals and humans, the way light plays in darkness. It is also glancingly good with the tender dances of falling in love, raising a family, working, being alive and human. You won't know what you saw, I can guarantee that much, but you might want to keep looking. Tropical Malady nags with an air of muted yet repellent fascination, like a person of inscrutable beauty used to being stared at. Think of it maybe as externalized meditation.

The translation for the original title, Sud pralad, is roughly "strange animal" and altogether that provides a better frame for what follows—I'm not sure I see a "malady" anywhere here—though the truth is it's hard to know how to prepare for seeing this movie. A headnote offers this: "All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our duty as human beings is to become like trainers who keep their animals in check, and even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality."

In many ways it is a movie about bifurcations, or maybe "duality," pitting apparent opposites against one another, or setting them up in parallel, or sequence: humanity vs. primal nature, science / technology vs. magic, the family vs. the individual, life vs. death, the carnal vs. the spiritual. In the first half we follow a loosely constructed romance between a soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) whose unit is passing through a rural region and a country boy (Sakda Kaewbuadee) living there. They see one another around. The soldier gives the boy a tape of Clash songs. The boy wonders how he knew he liked the Clash. The soldier says he did his research. They meet a magical woman who tells them strange stories and takes them to unusual, dangerous places. She is probably a spirit. The wall between the earthly plane and the spirit world is infinitely penetrable in Tropical Malady.

Thailand in 2004 was no more enlightened than anyplace else, so the romance is necessarily clandestine, a secret, though happily it is early in the affair and shame is not yet much a part of it. At almost exactly the halfway point of the picture, it shifts to a story of a soldier (Lomnoi again, though from lighting and setup I did not easily recognize him). He is on an isolated mission in the jungle. The details of that mission are explained late and appear to be unimportant as he has made his mission hunting a shape-shifting tiger spirit (Kaewbuadee again, though even more unrecognizable), which in turn also happens to be hunting him.

It's the second half that wins Tropical Malady all its characterizations as "experimental" and "avant-garde." It is a marked break from the first half, mostly silent, with almost no dialogue, though now and then intertitles provide helpful (and confusing) information. The soldier carries a radio which fascinates the tiger spirit. Monkeys and ghosts of cows offer the soldier oblique information. A tree briefly takes on qualities of immortality, before settling back again into the soft nightscape, where crickets saw away. The soldier continually underestimates the power of the tiger spirit. Ultimately the soldier knows fear.

The most relevant question in all this is the usual WTF. Wikipedia tells stories of people streaming away from press screenings and those who stayed booing it at the end, and indeed, I have found myself growing impatient with it. It is opaque and slow to develop when it develops at all, which is not always. It's one you have to be in a mood for, and not helped by various evident problems in transfer to DVD (or not—hard to tell "mistakes" in this one).

Perhaps the most apt comparison to Lynch is Weerasethakul's use of pop music and dance music, which like everything else here is bewilderingly random, but sumptuous, breathtaking, and beautiful when it comes—sublime. I think this is also something that can redeem Harmony Korine projects, notably Mister Lonely. Pop music well placed can redeem almost anything for me, I confess. And so it is in Tropical Malady, which I can't exactly recommend but can certainly call your attention to.


  1. I struggled with both Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Buck's Past Lives. I was tired both nights, drifting in and out, and I just didn't know what to make of them. I remember Syndromes ended with a great bit of anomalous music.

  2. Uncle Boonmee is the one I like best but they all have their moments and they are also all too complacent about our attention spans.

  3. I just watched this, and I thought you'd like to know, when I Googled "tropical malady wtf", this page was second on the list.

  4. Hilarious -- little-known click bait tricks.